Saturday 17 March 2018

Boxing: Ken Norton once became champion without throwing a punch

CLASH: Ken Norton, left, fights Muhammad Ali in 1973
CLASH: Ken Norton, left, fights Muhammad Ali in 1973

Ken Norton, the former world heavyweight champion who died last Wednesday aged 70, will always be remembered as the man who broke Muhammad Ali's jaw on the way to outpointing "The Greatest" in a non-title fight in San Diego in March 1973.

A formidable opponent who ranked among the best in what can now be viewed as a golden era of heavyweights, the rugged former US Marine reinforced the view that he was Ali's "bogeyman" by pushing him very close in two subsequent encounters.

Norton's other claim to fame was becoming heavyweight champion without throwing a punch. This farcical situation resulted when he was awarded the World Boxing Council crown in March 1978 after the WBC controversially stripped Leon Spinks of the title following his decision to give Ali a rematch. Norton's reign turned out to be one of the briefest in history, however, as he lost a titanic 15-round showdown with Larry Holmes just 72 days later. It proved to be his last great performance and a horrific first-round knockout at the hands of the emerging Gerry Cooney ended his career in 1981.

Born in Jacksonville, Illinois, on August 9, 1943, Norton, who came from a stable, middle-class background, showed early promise as an athlete before leaving college to join the US Marines in 1964. Having been introduced to boxing during his service, he turned professional in September 1967 and proceeded to win his first 16 fights.

Norton's first loss – an eighth-round knockout against Jose Luis Garcia in July 1970 – was attributed to over-confidence and led his trainer Eddie Futch to pin the photo of the knockout to Norton's locker as an enduring warning against complacency.

Standing 6ft 3in and weighing 15 stone, Norton had all the makings of a heavyweight champion; a fact recognised by Ali's training camp, who in 1970 employed Norton as a sparring partner. Over the next two years he continued his rise up the rankings, ensuring that his next showdown with Ali would be not be as partner, but opponent.

When the pair clashed it was nothing like the routine victory Ali expected. The pair went toe-to-toe for 12 exciting rounds, Norton benefiting from the advice of cornerman Futch, who had first-hand knowledge of Ali's style and tactics, having worked with Ali's great nemesis Joe Frazier two years previously.

To the shock of many ringsiders, Norton was awarded a split decision, while Ali – whose jaw was broken in the early rounds – was whisked off to the nearest hospital to have his mouth wired shut.

Six months later the pair met for the North American Boxing Federation title at the Los Angeles Forum. Again the outcome was desperately close with Ali getting the nod on a split decision.

In 1974 Norton travelled to Venezuela, to challenge George Foreman – the WBC and World Boxing Association title-holder. Norton failed badly on the biggest night of his career. He was floored three times before being stopped in the second round.

The biggest disappointment of Norton's career was still to come, however. Following seven successive stoppage wins – including a revenge triumph over Garcia and fifth-round knockout of title contender Jerry Quarry – he sealed a third fight with Ali for the WBA and WBC titles at Yankee Stadium on September 28, 1976.

Convinced he had Ali's measure, Norton exuded confidence going into the fight. For 15 rounds the two men again went toe-to-toe, and Norton returned to his corner following the final bell convinced he had outworked the ageing champion. But the decision was a close but unanimous decision in favour of Ali, and Norton was heartbroken. "I was smiling and crying at the same time," he recalled in his autobiography. "I had accomplished the unthinkable, beaten Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world."

Norton was now 31, but still not finished. On November 5, 1977 he returned to face Duane Bobick, a much-touted white hope who had Futch in his corner, at New York's Madison Square Garden. Bobick was on the cusp of a world title shot and Futch clearly felt Norton was there for the taking; yet Norton turned back the clock to leave the hapless Bobick unconscious after just 58 seconds, effectively ending his career.

After two more victories Norton unexpectedly became WBC champion after Spinks was stripped of the title. Then on June 9, 1978, Norton and Holmes staged one of the great heavyweight fights at Caesars Palace, the latter just edging the decision following 15 rounds. Norton was never able to scale such heights again.

Norton went on to reinvent himself as a film and television actor, with roles in Mandingo (1975), Drum (1976) and The A-Team (1983). For a time he worked with NBC as a fight analyst.

In 1986 a road accident in Los Angeles left him with brain injuries, but following a long spell in rehabilitation he had recovered sufficiently to open his own gym. His final years were blighted by ill health.

Ken Norton's first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Jacqueline, whom he married in 1977, and by five children.

Sunday Independent

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